by Nguyen Hong Thai
|Illustration by Do Dung
My Cung Village was located in the central region of the country, about three hundred kilometres south-east of Ha Noi. It usually took residents more than a day to reach the capital by coach, but now we could cover that distance in less than half a day, without stopping. On Saturday morning, while we were still soundly sleeping we were woken by a loud call at the gate, "please open the gate for me, would you? It's your friend, Binh here." From the third floor I raced downstairs and on the other side of our gate, saw a middle-aged man holding a bamboo cage of small ducks, with a thin girl in her late teens standing by his side.
"Hi Binh, how are you? Haven't seen you in ages!" I greeted my childhood classmate and hugged him tightly. He was a teacher at our local elementary school and our fathers were comrades-in-arms during the French Resistance and both became disabled ex-servicemen before peace time. They became known for their drinking instead of their fighting. Mr Dien, Binh's father, used to visit our parents after walking 3 kilometres and whenever he stayed with us, my father always made sure we offered delicious meals. Mr Dien was an expert maker of fish baskets and his products had been highly sought-after in all the surrounding markets in our area including Sy, Dan, Nho Lam and especially Hoan Dien, my native village.
After pouring two hot cups of tea for Binh and his daughter, I enquired after his parents' health. "Are they all right?" I asked him.
He stared at me, stunned, as if I was some sort of foreign creature. After a minute's silence he said to me in a low voice, "My father died a few months after your Dad and at his funeral, your mum saw him off as far as the Con Dam cemetery!"
I felt confused. His death was indeed beyond my knowledge for nobody informed me of the sad news, for we had no telephone then. Even my mother did not write to me to let me know about it. I studied at secondary school before going to university in town for many years and only made it home a few times. I felt awfully sorry for being unable to burn a few sticks of incense on his altar to pay my respects to him. Whenever he dropped in on our parents, he was warmly welcome by us and for us little kids, we loved the delicious duck legs he brought and the taste of rice with the sweet broth of the bird meat.
"My Dad passed away as was his destiny, and your father died younger than mine, although he was a few years younger. My father died an unjust death," Binh blurted out.
That night when we spoke, he told me many things regarding his father's tragic death and we were unable to sleep after drinking too many warm cups of strong Thai Nguyen tea.
"I encourage my daughter to enter the municipal College of Medicine partly because of his premature death," he narrated the sad story in fits and starts and I tried to form it in my favourite press style as follows.
While I was studying at the National University of Ha Noi I received the news that my father was falling seriously ill and I immediately took the slow train home. Unexpectedly, that night went so fast and I felt cold and anxious thinking about my fatherhealth. I didn't eat or drink during the whole trip and in the back carriage, I sat huddled on a large seat, smoking cigarette after cigarette.
At four o'clock the next morning, I arrived at Yen Ly station and it was deserted. The cold wind blew violently along the national highway. In winter the sun rose late and the frosty wind numbed my fingers. I wrapped my head in a woollen scarf and marched ahead. For a long time I was unable to enjoy the countryside as the morning was engulfed by fog. Far ahead I saw a flickering of light, it was my home village. A few minutes later, I walked along the village path amid the loud barks of a dog, echoing my hurried footsteps.
‘Dad,' I called, as was my habit whenever I returned home after a long journey.
‘Binh's come back home. Open the gate for him, my dear darling,' my father told my mother in a weak voice from the corner of our house.
I stood motionless for a few seconds, then I ran towards his bed and turned up the paraffin lamp, it's dim glow spreading around him and bouncing off the earthen walls and thatched roofed. From his bed he lifted his head and offered a quiet moan. I seized his hands. They were both cold and stiff and it seemed to me that he was concealing tears.
‘Why have you come home so early, dear son? My illness has turned very serious,' he said, his voice wavering, before settling into a deep sigh. I covered him with a thick blanket. He had grown skinny in his illness, and I sat beside him until mum set the table for the four of us.
Several days later I decided to take him to the Hoan Dien district hospital, where well-known surgeon Hoan was well-known for accepting large bonuses to do his job.
My father's operation would be made early the next morning after a heavy bag of sticky rice and several dozen chicken eggs had been covertly placed behind his hospital bed. Before operating on his digestive canal, I carried dad to the back of a small room and Dr Hoan led us into a brightly-lit theatre. I was told to stand outside, and shivered with worry.
All of a sudden, I heard the short, screeching sound of the door opening and Dr Hoan stuck his head out, stared at me, and said ‘take him to the lounge.' Heaving a sigh of relief with my cousin Hong we darted into the operating theatre. On the bed, dad stretched out his arm to welcome us. All agony seemed to have been wiped from his face.
‘It wasn't too painful, my beloved Binh,' he told me. ‘Take me back to my room so I can relax, I'm worn out,' he added.
Unfortunately for Dad, he was already infected beyond recognition. A month after the operation, blood remained oozing out of his scares. He was losing too much blood, and became weary and pale. Before going back to university, I looked after him for nearly one week. One night, when other members of my family had slept well, he called me to his bed and whispered in my ear, ‘My beloved son, I know you're well educated, so I'm willing to give you a few pieces of advice. In my life, the kind of professionals I honour most are the teacher and the physician. To the best of my knowledge, Dr Hoan is a good surgeon, yet my incision has become infected. Therefore, my health is getting worse and worse with every passing day.'
‘So, you don't feel well, do you?' I asked him.
‘I feel like something has been left in my belly from the operation, which now causes terrible pain, but don't hold a grudge against him. He is a good man and has tried his best for me.'
At this point, Binh lay down on the floor to rest. A moment later, he asked me, "I wonder where you were those days and why you didn't know these facts?" After a few moments of silence, Binh resumed his story.
As a student, during that time I was brave enough to illegally trade cigarettes to earn enough money to purchase a wooden coffin for my father. You see, in our society then, old people with serious illnesses would feel quite at ease if they found a coffin at home ready for them to pass away. My father was no exception. Later, he urged me to return to university immediately to prepare for my graduation thesis. A few months later, he left home stealthily without my family noticing and when I got the bad news, at 2 o'clock on the afternoon of August 28, his mourning rites were being held amongst a great number of relatives, villagers and friends. Sadly, my mother was unable to attend, as she was busy trading rice in a far-away market, and several days later she returned home to find him already buried in a graveyard.
Three years later, according to our customs, his body was disinterred for reburial. At three o'clock that morning, when his corpse was taken from the decayed coffin, we found a small pair of rusty scissors amongst the pieces of bone. My mother, brother, Hong and I, were all shocked to see this medical instrument lying with his remains. "Who secretly dropped it into the coffin before the burial?" asked Mr Tam Nhay, our dearest neighbour, because at the moment of burying, he was beside the coffin. I knew, as dad had told me after his operation, what had really happened, "I feel something rather heavy left inside me, something uncomfortable," he had once said. But during that solemn ceremony I was unable to reveal the terrible truth. Maybe dad, well aware of his humble destiny, didn't want us to be in debt; so he had hidden that fatal truth, and left in agony.
Many years passed by my hatred for Dr Hoan remained. My father had died young due to his negligence!
Binh kept silent for a long while and I thought he had started weeping.
Dozens of years have pasted, but I've never forgotten his crime. I've searched far and wide for him, wanting to avenging my father's death, which I know would run against my father's wishes.
Again Binh fell silent. I held his hand tightly and we stayed silent for a long time before he finally spoke, his voice low.
That surgeon had left our district hospital many years ago. Every time, I burn some joss-sticks and plant them into the incense-burner on the altar to pay homage to my father on the anniversary of his death, I always prayed, "may I be blessed with good health and have a chance to avenge your bitter fate." Finally, my dream came true one year ago, and I finally caught up with him.
"Where?" I asked, surprised.
Near the Cambodia border. After a long trip by train and coach, I asked a motor-taxi driver to take me to Hoan's house, thanks to a piece of information I had received. Of course, I brought that rusty pair of scissors with me and to my surprise, Hoan looked much older and tanned than before. At first I thought that he couldn't recognise me, after twenty years had passed, and I was shocked with he said, "Mr Binh, I knew some day you would come to visit me." Pouring a hot cup of tea he invited me, "please help yourself to the tea, although it is not so strong and sweet-smelling as ours in Hoan Dien district."
I sat bewildered. All I could do was to look around his large, beautiful but empty house.
"I'm glad you remember me. Surely you why I've come here today, don't you?" I asked him.
"Yes, of course I do. I operated on your father's urosis and a nurse accidentally left a pair of scissors inside his stomach. When your father died, I found out, but didn't dare disclose the truth," he answered, a hint of shame entering his voice.
"Sheer nonsense! It's you who is to blame," I yelled sternly.
"I know you want to avenge your father's death. You can kill me right now, life means nothing to me any more," he said.
Saying this, he began to sob. For men, crying was quite rare. It was likely that he had suffered silently for something so horribly he could no longer stand it. "As a well-known journalist, my dear friend, you surely know that.'"
"Frankly, by now I've got nothing left," complained the doctor in a mumbling voice. "Before you go back North, you should know about my dream when I was in Hoan Dien district and became the richest person there: I wanted to have a few sons. Fortune had smiled upon me, indeed: I had two good-looking, smart boys – one is aged fifteen and the other, ten. When I settled down in the South, I used to trade in fake or expired medication. I fled from my native town to reside here in the hope that nobody would recognise me. In this new place, I sought forgiveness for my sins and my wife and I frequently went to holy pagodas and shrines so I could be pardoned. Yet, as bad luck would have it – both of my sons were taken at a young age.
Hearing his tragic account, I slowly walked out of his deserted house and he tried to stop me, in vain. He sobbed and sobbed and when I turned round, he had collapsed at the gate. I hailed another motorbike taxi and left.
"What about that pair of scissors, Brother Binh? What did you do with them?"
"Of course, they're still here in this bag. To be honest, that day I wanted to throw them at him, but on second thoughts, I forgave him for his mistake. To some extent, he had been forgiven for his deadly sin and no more punishment was needed."
Nearly twenty years have passed by and I have this pair of scissors. Tomorrow, when my daughter enrols into college I will tell her the entire story and give them to her as a keepsake. It will remind her she must do well at university treat any patient, rich or poor, with care, because their fate lies in her hands. I want her to understand how deadly these instruments can be, but I don't want to scare her, maybe I should just toss it into a waterway in my native town and get rid of it. Can you give me any advice? What should I do?
Again, Binh breathed heavily as if he had been weeping. Lying by his side, I silently listened to the rustling of the areca leaves in front of my veranda and to the chirps of the birds on my next-door neighbour's longan tree. I maintain the silence, pondering the best answer to his question.
Translated by Van Minh